Meet The Market Managers: Natalie Marsh, Lotus Communications, Las Vegas
“We pride ourselves on who we are as a group and why the sports teams want to be affiliated with us.”
Las Vegas is a beast unto itself. No one knows that better than Natalie Marsh. She has been with Lotus Communications in Sin City for 24 years, and has seen the market completely transform in that time.
In a city where there is always something new to do, how innovative do your sellers need to be? How much do the old ways of doing business still work with clients?
Forget the sales side for a second. How do Marsh and her programmers keep up with the ever expanding roster of sports offerings in town to make sure both the teams and local listeners are getting what they expect from the company’s five sports stations?
Natalie answers all of these questions and more in the latest Meet the Market Managers column presented by Point-to-Point Marketing. Enjoy!
Demetri Ravanos: Since we’re focused on sports radio, I think the best place to start is the way Las Vegas has exploded as a home for major league professional sports. How have the expectations of your staff, both programing and sales, changed as those teams have come to town?
Natalie Marsh: I would say it has changed pretty dramatically and it’s been a real learning experience. Fortunately, we had two support stations prior to even the Golden Knights being here. So, we had a team of sellers that were invested in selling the passion and the loyalty of the sports fan.
That’s just grown and expanded, and now we’re teaching them how to take that to the next level. Now, we have five sports radio stations.
From a programming standpoint, it’s really been about finding the right people. They have to be engaged. It’s different when you have the teams here. The expectations change.
There is nothing more amazing and maybe a little bit frightening than the owners and executives of the teams listening to your stations. It’s super flattering, but take Raider Nation Radio for an example. Mark Davis listens to that station every day. There’s a different level of expectation or engagement or knowledge that has to come into play.
Are our guys going to the practices? Are they seen at the games?
It’s more than just watching it on TV, which is really what it was prior to us having any professional teams. The game changes when you have to go from having minor league baseball and university sports to having an NHL team, a WNBA team who just won the championship, and an NFL team.
We pride ourselves on who we are as a group and why the sports teams want to be affiliated with us. There’s a lot of pressure internally to make sure that we’re keeping up to that standard.
DR: I do want to talk about Raider Nation Radio. Is that something other stations and ownership groups have come to you with questions about the way the relationship works with the Raiders? Because certainly there are teams in other markets across the country with fan bases that would respond to a station like that. How much of a resource have you been for other stations around the country?
NM: I would have to ask my PD. I’ve never personally had another group reach out to me on, how this came to be.
For me, it’s about what can we do, and analyzing what we can make from a sales perspective. Also, what can we do that is a different way to monetize the affiliation with the team but also makes the team realize how much of a partner you really are. That’s really where Raider Nation Radio came from.
Mark Davis or even his dad prior to him had always been second best in the Bay area. That’s the way they’ve always been treated. It was always the 49ers first and Raiders second. So we made a promise as we were presenting as to why we would be the right choice as the flagship radio partner. We were going to have a station that was dedicated to the Raiders. That’s really where Raider Nation Radio was born.
DR: So I want to ask you about that and the Golden Knights as well because you guys have put a priority on being the flagship stations of the teams in town. I wonder what sort of conversations you are having in the lead-up to those pitches, both with your bosses and also with your staff, about the importance of getting those play-by-play rights.
NM: So we’ll go back to the Knights, because I’m going to tell you that prior to the Knights, we had rights for our minor league baseball team and UNLV.
There were certainly times during my 24 years at Lotus Broadcasting that UNLV helped us make some money, people wanted to be on the games. But they’ve had their struggles. And so we were pretty naive about what this was going to look like.
I was a sales manager when we went to pitch for the Vegas Golden Knights, and I went to my GM right away and said, “Do we want to pitch for these rights? What do we want to do? What what does it look like?” We made some calls, we did some digging, and I met with my sales team, and said, “Here’s what I’m going to need from you guys. Do you think you can deliver it?” I’m lucky because I had a couple of salespeople that really embraced it.
Everybody thought “Hockey in the desert? This is going to be terrible. Nobody is going to want to do it.” But I had a couple salespeople that would talk to advertisers and say, “Look, you’ve got to get in this the first year or you’re not going to be able to get in next year. We’re going to sell it out. It’s going to be first come, first serve, and if you don’t get in now the prices will be higher and you won’t be able to get in.”
These are all things that we talked and strategized about, but I had a couple that actually did it right. We sold it out. The team obviously did its part and made it to the Stanley Cup Finals that first year. So the premise that we sold became a reality.
We expanded our coverage because part of our presentation to the Golden Knights was that we would do a game a week in Spanish. I had done some research and realized a couple of markets had sort of played around with Spanish broadcasting in the NHL. Nobody had really given it their all. Our station became the first Spanish broadcast of a Stanley Cup Finals game, which exploded and became viral.
So from that, we thought, “Hey, we’re going to do every home game.” And that’s how we moved forward. And I was able to expand what we had available on the Hispanic side and what we had available on the general market side, amending that contract to include these extra Spanish home games that we were carrying. It’s really been fantastic!
When you teach a sales staff how to sell probably the hardest of the four, sports it becomes very easy to sell the Raiders right after that because the NFL is the easiest.
We’re a little crazy. I heard the WNBA was coming in and said, “We owe it to female athletes and fans to become a partner for them. I don’t know if we’ll ever make money on it.” I said to my boss at the time “I’m going to do my best. I’ll at least make sure it’s a wash for you, but I think we need to do it. It’s the right thing to do.”
We started carrying all of their home games because a lot of these facilities aren’t set up to have the away team there with a radio broadcast. The Aces won the championship last year, which we were able to sell strongly. Now that demand is even higher.
It’s been fun to watch not only the sales team grow in how they understand it, and how they sell the passion of it. We don’t sit in a market where those sports stations get a lot of ratings. The market size just isn’t there. We only have 800 to 900 meters in the market. So unless they get lucky and one just happened to fall on a sports fan, you just don’t see the movement that you might elsewhere. So we don’t sell on ratings. The sales team has really embraced it.
DR: So am I right to assume that businesses in a market like Las Vegas, which is built on experience and entertainment, understand the value in sports radio? Because you hit on it, right? It is not a ratings play. There have to be businesses that understand the value of a dedicated audience, even if it is smaller, they are more apt to hear the message than just a straight numbers buy.
NM: Absolutely. We have been very fortunate in being able to prove that to them. You’ve got to get that trust first. You tell them the story and then you show them.
We have car dealerships and hotel/casinos on there, We have every kind of business, but those are big businesses with ad agencies that we’ve still been able to convince this isn’t about the numbers. That’s quite a feat in 2023.
That’s why I’m really proud of my sales team because it’s hard sometimes to convince people this isn’t about the numbers. A lot of clients want to talk about numbers because the other groups want to talk about the numbers. It’s a competitive marketplace for those ad dollars, especially in the last three years.
You had COVID, then things started coming back, and everybody was so nervous about that. Then last year was a political year, and now this year everybody’s worried about the economy. There’s just a lot of competition in the space. Even as the teams come to town they sort of take money out of the market because of their sponsorship dollars. So then that space becomes even more competitive.
Our programming team is fantastic. They go out on calls with the salespeople and they’re super engaged with our clients and our partners. The whole building getting behind a sales effort makes all the difference in the world.
DR: So given that connection that the audience has with these stations, with the local personalities, what is the process like on pitching a new client on the benefits of paying that premium for things like endorsements and live events, to really take advantage of an audience that wants to do what these people are telling them to do?
NM: I think there’s a couple of ways that you can make an impact. If you’ve done your CNA properly and you understand which on-air talent is going to mesh best with the client, you bring the talent to them and let that personality express their passion. Then the client can see it and know that same passion exists with our listeners.
The other thing that is really successful is taking the client to an event. We do a lot of viewing parties. Not only do we have five sports stations, but I have two rock stations, and rock sets us up really well to do the viewing parties because it’s another male-based audience. So, it’s easy to get a prospective client to a sports viewing party. Last year was the first time we did away game viewing parties for the Aces. This is before they were winning the championship, but we had started taking clients to the games.
That’s the other thing — take them to a game and let them see the excitement of the fans. The WNBA, that’s not an easy sell, but if you go to a game, you are sold that it is a really, really good game of basketball. Take a female manager or owner and show them, “Look at these women! You’ve got to support the sport.” And they see the excitement and the passion of the fans.
Utilizing those three things: Meet our personality and see their passion, come see the passion of the fans at away game parties, or come and see the passion of the fans at the game. They kind of get it and then they’re willing to take a chance. Then when they start getting results, they’re in.
DR: When you are looking for sellers, whether you’re actively recruiting or somebody’s resume just comes across your desk, how specialized is your search? Is it easy to get someone up to speed on doing business with things like casinos and clubs or are those the kind of accounts that you really need market knowledge and institutional knowledge of those businesses in order to be successful?
NM: I think it would depend. There’s sports betting everywhere now so that changes things a little bit and makes it a little easier if I’m going out of the market.
I’m a little spoiled because we have huge longevity here in my group. I’ve been here 24 years and I have sellers that have been here longer than me. That comes with pros and cons, but for the most part, they are pros. We tend to be the group in town that people want to work for, so it makes it easy to recruit in the market.
I think if I was looking at somebody that wanted to come here from out of town, there would be a conversation of “Tell me what it’s like in your market when you have to sell events because Vegas is different.” I know everybody thinks that their town is different. But I’ve been doing this long enough to know that it’s actually true here.
We get inundated with messages and so you have to be ready to explain to a new business that opens. People have a lot of options here. More than they have anywhere else. Every day there’s something else coming and it just it doesn’t seem to slow down.
I’ve never worried about if somebody knows how to sell to a casino or not, because if you know how to sell any kind of on-site activation, then it’s probably pretty easy to turn that into what it could look like if done at a casino.
DR: So I want to flip to the other big side of radio, which is programming. Q Myers is an interesting guy. I personally like him a lot. You have him leading multiple brands. At the same time, his own profile is rising as a host. Tell me a bit about the conversations you guys have about balancing those two sides of this job and how they each serve Lotus in Las Vegas.
NM: So our sports product is the only product that has a PD and an assistant PD for exactly that reason. So we knew that. We had that in place prior to Q coming here.
We knew that we wanted a personality as a PD — someone that was going to do both. Once I met Q, it was just a given. There was no way that I wasn’t going to have him be on the air. He’s really just too good at it. It really helped that we already had an assistant PD in place.
Now, what I did not know about Q is, he doesn’t stop! I will be driving home at 7:00 at night and I’ll have ESPN on and I’m like, “Oh. Q is filling in for Freddie Coleman again.” And then I’ll be listening on the weekends and he’s got his weekend show. I often joke with his wife like, “You know, this isn’t me, right?”. She’s like, “I know. I was married to him prior to you.” I’ve given her bottles of wine before to be like, “I’m so sorry that your husband works all the time.”
But his passion and energy are contagious. That’s what’s so special about Q because it’s really hard not to want to laugh and smile and have fun at your job, but also work really hard when your boss is laughing and smiling and working his butt off. Even though I tell him to slow down and he doesn’t listen to me, it’s okay. It’s the pot calling the kettle black a little bit because he would probably tell me the same thing.
DR: So I want to end by asking sort of a bigger question. You’ve noticed that our discussion has been about sales and programming. When people think about the radio business, it’s easy to divide it into those two categories. But I wonder if we look at the other aspects of the business, how healthy is the pool of capable, experienced candidates in your experience when you are looking to fill a role like, say, promotions or engineering or production? Any of those behind-the-scenes roles that do not fall into the sales or programming categories?
NM: I’ve been really lucky. I sit with a lot of different business leaders on a regular basis, and their biggest complaint is not being able to find talent. I’ve had multiple times that I’ve had to find talent since COVID or even during COVID and have always been able to find the right person. Whether it was an engineer, a board op or a remote tech.
Again, that longevity does come into play to protect me a little bit, just because I haven’t had maybe the volume that other people have had. So maybe, just by pure numbers, I would start to have more of an issue if I was having to hire more people but when I look at who we have had to hire in those areas, we just have been really fortunate.
I try to have a really good relationship with UNLV and their broadcast school and school of journalism. I’ve had some candidates come from there in those positions. We also do a work-study program with a job and college preparatory school that we have here in town. We’ve actually hired one person from that school, and have been involved from the beginning. They have their first graduating class this year.
So we have another kid in mind. He is interested in coming on board to learn how to run play-by-play while he goes to college, so we’ll likely have a second person that we hire from that school.
I think it just depends on how innovative you get when you’re looking for talent. The last person that I hired, I looked at my engineering department a little bit differently. I realized we needed help in the department but I didn’t think we needed an RF engineer anymore because so much of what radio does is digital and IT. We were redoing all of the studios, and some of that is about computer stuff, not RF.
You can get an RF contractor if you need one out here, but I need somebody in the building that understands all of the aspects of this new digital world that I just hopped into because we were a little bit behind. I think it’s kind of opening up and expanding your thoughts on what does that new person’s skillset need to look like? You have to think a little bit outside of the box in my experience.
Look at our sellers. Every single person that worked in some sort of traditional advertising lost a chunk of our business to digital advertising. That’s just the thing, and so you have to have that component that you can offer so that you can get back some of that budget that you’ve lost going back to like 2008 or 2009.
You just have to be open-minded. And if somebody comes to you and they have a passion for your business and they have a passion to learn, even if they maybe don’t have the experience, then that’s almost worth it to take that chance on that person versus trying to find somebody that has the experience.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.
Robert Griffin III Wants to Tell Your Story the Right Way
“Even if I do know you personally, I’m not going to bring that to the broadcast because that’s not my job.”
During last season’s VRBO Fiesta Bowl, Robert Griffin III was part of ESPN’s alternate telecast at field level alongside Pat McAfee. Suddenly, the Heisman Trophy winner took a phone call. Once he hung up the phone, Griffin divulged that his wife had gone into labor and proceeded to sprint off of the field to catch a flight. An ESPN cameraperson documented his run and jubilation as he returned home to welcome his daughter, Gia, into the world. It encapsulated just what motivates Griffin to appear on television and discuss football, and why he is one of ESPN’s budding talents with the chance to make an impact on sports media and his community for years to come.
“This was an opportunity for me to go out and be different in the way that the media covers the players and truly get to the bottom of telling the players’ stories the right way,” Griffin said. “I look at this as an opportunity to do that.”
Griffin was a three-sport athlete as a student at Copperas Cove High School, and ultimately broke Texas state records in track and field. In addition to that, he played basketball and was the starting quarterback for the school’s football team as a junior and senior, drawing attention from various schools around the country. He ended up graduating high school one semester early and quickly became a star at Baylor University in both football and track and field.
Robert Griffin III’s nascent talent was hardly inconspicuous, evidenced by being named the 2008 Big 12 Conference Offensive Freshman of the Year and then, three years later, the winner of the Heisman Trophy. In the end, he graduated having set or tied 54 school records and helped the program to its first bowl game win in 19 years.
Ultimately, he transitioned to the NFL in a career with many trials and tribulations, but through it all, he never lost his sense of persistence. Nearly a decade later, he returned to college, but this time as a member of the media covering the game from afar. Unlike a majority of former players though, Griffin did not formally retire from playing football when inking a broadcasting contract with ESPN.
“I haven’t retired yet at all,” he said. “I tell everyone that asks me the question that I train every day [and] I’m prepared to play if that call does come. I’ve had some talks with teams over the past two years; just nothing has come to fruition.”
While Griffin’s focus as a broadcaster is undeniable, he never thought about seriously pursuing sports media until his broadcast agent pushed him to do so. He was urged to take an audition at FOX Sports. Griffin broke down highlights and called a mock NFL game alongside lead play-by-play announcer Kevin Burkhardt. He was not prepared for that second part, but impressed executives and precipitously realized a career in the space may not be so outlandish after all.
Griffin then moved to ESPN where he experienced a similar audition process, this time calling a game with play-by-play announcer Rece Davis. Once the audition concluded, it was determined that Griffin would not only begin working in the industry, but that he would be accelerated because of his ability to communicate in an informative and entertaining style.
As a player, he saw the way media members covered teams – sometimes bereft of objectivity – and therefore saw assimilating into the industry as a chance to change that. Now, he is focused on telling the stories of the players en masse while being prepared to pivot at a moment’s notice.
ESPN’s intention was to implement Griffin on its studio coverage, but once executives heard him in the broadcast booth, the company had a palpable shift in its thinking. He was told he was ready to go out into the field and start calling games immediately, something of a surprise to him. FOX Sports felt similarly. This led to a bidding war between the two entities, which ultimately concluded with Griffin inking a contract with ESPN. He appeared over its airwaves plenty of times as a player, and even participated on a variety of studio shows in 2018 where he was almost permanently placed on NFL Live. This time around though, Griffin was suddenly preparing to work with Mark Jones and Quint Kessenich on college football games. He did not have time to consider the implications of the decision, instead diving headfirst into the craft and remaining focused on what was to come with producer Kim Belton and director Anthony DeMarco at his side.
“These guys took me under their wing, and I’m beyond indebted to them for that,” Griffin said of his colleagues. “They taught me everything that I know about the industry. They taught me everything I know about how to present things to the masses to where it can be easily digestible. They’ve allowed me to allow my personality to shine through.”
Demonstrating his personality was a facet of his makeup Griffin felt was inhibited by playing professional football, but he knows it would have been considerably more difficult to attain a chance to cover the game had he not laced up his cleats. Calling college football games with Jones accentuated his comfort in the booth because of Jones’ adept skill to appeal to the viewers and penetrate beyond the sport.
“He has the way to connect different generations of listeners to hear what he’s saying and perceive it in the same way,” Griffin said. “To me, that’s what we all strive to do in this industry is to be able to find the connective tissue between the fan who is 60 or 70 years old, and the fan who’s in their late teens or early 20s.”
From the beginning, everyone told Griffin to be himself and not adopt an alternate persona in front of the camera. That advice has guided him as he approaches his third year working in the industry.
“It is so hard to maintain a character or try to be someone that you’re not, but if you are who you are every single day, then every time you show up on camera you will be that person,” Griffin said. “I’ve made sure that when I stepped foot in front of that camera, I was going to be myself.”
Griffin identifies his style as pedagogical to a degree, critiquing players as if he was coaching them on the sidelines. He will never look to penetrate beyond football with his criticism, as drawing conclusions and using unrelated parlance could be viewed as indecorous. In short, Griffin III knows what it means to represent ESPN.
“We’re not a gossip website. We’re supposed to be critically acclaimed, prestigious journalists, and at the end of the day, that’s how I try to approach the job that I do. That’s why I got into the business – because I felt like there was a little of that going on, especially during my career, so I would never do to somebody else what was done to me.”
Over the course of his NFL career, Griffin was subject to immense criticism that went significantly beyond the gridiron. For example, sports commentator Rob Parker suggested that Griffin was not fully representative of the Black community and proceeded to question if he was a “cornball brother.” The incident resulted in Parker receiving a 30-day suspension from ESPN, and after he defended his comments and blamed First Take producers in a subsequent interview, the network decided not to renew his contract.
“My goal as a member of the media is to tell players’ stories the right way, and if I don’t know you personally, I’m never going to make it personal,” Griffin said. “Even if I do know you personally, I’m not going to bring that to the broadcast because that’s not my job.”
In addition to broadcasting college football games with Jones on ESPN and ABC, he also appears on-site for Monday Night Countdown, the network’s pregame show leading up to Monday Night Football. Making the decision to add NFL coverage to his slate of responsibilities meant that Griffin would be able to tell more stories and utilize his knowledge of players during their collegiate careers to enhance the broadcast.
The energy that he felt attending tailgates and interacting with fans at the college level gave him a unique skill set to translate to the NFL side, leading him to present the production team with an unparalleled idea for Week 1. He wanted to race Taima the Hawk, the live game mascot for the Seattle Seahawks who flies around Lumen Field prior to the start of each home game. It was an outlandish idea, but one that made sense for television because of the visual appeal it can present.
“If you know anything about hawks, they can fly up to 120-140 miles per hour, so they’re like, ‘There’s no way he’s going to beat this hawk in a race, but we’ll do it,’” Griffin said. “To that crew’s credit, they never once balked at any of the creative ideas that I brought to the table because they want to try different things and be exciting and have fun on the show.”
Griffin ended up winning the race, commencing the new season of Monday Night Countdown with immediate excitement before the Seahawks’ matchup against the Denver Broncos. He thoroughly enjoyed his first year on the show and having the chance to work alongside Suzy Colber, Adam Schefter, Booger McFarland, Steve Young, Larry Fitzgerald and Alex Smith.
“They always tell me, ‘Hey, anything you’re not comfortable with, you just let us know and we won’t do that thing,’” Griffin said of the show’s producers. “My answer always back to them is, ‘Well, I won’t know if I’m uncomfortable with it if I don’t try.’”
While Griffin had what looked like a seamless assimilation into the broadcasting world, he had a difficult moment when using a racial slur on live television in discussing Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts. The clip quickly gained traction across the internet, and Griffin issued an apology on his Twitter account for using the pejorative language and claimed that he misspoke.
“I was shocked that it came out in the way that it did, and I immediately jumped on it and apologized because there’s no need to deny,” he said. “You messed up. You move forward, and I think that’s the easiest way to get over those types of things and to get back on your feet.”
The football season at both the college and professional level is undoubtedly a grind, and it requires a combination of dedication, passion and persistence few people possess. Robert Griffin III has garnered the reputation of being an “overpreparer,” often partaking in considerably more information than necessary to execute a broadcast. The information he consumes and conclusions he draws combined with his experience at both levels has cultivated him into a knowledgeable analyst who makes cogent, intelligible points on the air.
“I over-prepare for everything, and 70% of the information that I soak in going into a game or going into a broadcast for Monday Night Countdown, I don’t use because there’s just not enough air time,” Griffin III said. “There’s not enough opportunities to talk on it all.”
At the same time, he makes a concerted effort to make the most of his time with his family and separate himself from the field, engaging in activities including playing ping pong, going to the movies and supporting his children. He also embarks in charity work through his RG3 Foundation and strives to teach his daughters the importance of giving back. The mission of the nonprofit foundation is to discover and design programs for underprivileged youth, struggling military families and victims of domestic violence, and it has made a significant impact since it was launched in 2015.
“Trying to end food insecurity; making sure that our under-resourced youth have access to the things that they need just to survive – talking about food, clothes, books, the ability to learn [and] putting on these after-school programs,” Griffin elucidated in describing the organization’s mission. “We want to have an impact on our community. We mean that with everything in us and have shown that to be the true case of why we do this.”
Griffin’s wife, Grete, serves as the executive director of the foundation and also runs her own fitness business. Staying physically and mentally in shape is something they actively try to accomplish in their everyday lives, and lessons they are passing down to their daughters.
“I’m 33 years old right now, so if I want to continue to train every single day, I can do that for the next 10 years if I need to,” Griffin said. “Not taking hits and being physically fit is also a good thing for your own health, which is something me and my wife are extremely passionate about.”
Although his experience is in playing football and working in sports media, Robert Griffin III does not believe in limiting himself and would consider exploring opportunities outside of sports and entertainment. He wants to become the best broadcaster possible no matter where he is working in the industry and continue finding new ways to be distinctive en masse.
“We’re storytellers,” he said. “We’re here to break down things [and] to tell people a story the right way; things that people are interested in, and that expands across all media levels. We’re not closing the door on anything from that standpoint.”
While he was playing in the NFL, Griffin dealt with a variety of injuries that ultimately kept him off the football field and made it difficult to display his talents. Ranging from an ACL tear, shoulder scapula fracture and hairline fracture in his right thumb, staying healthy was a challenge for him over the time he played in the NFL.
Through surgeries and rehabilitation, he learned how to face and overcome these challenges. It has shaped him into the broadcaster and person he is today as he looks to set a positive example to aspiring football players and broadcasters everywhere.
“The eight-year career that I was able to have thus far didn’t come without roadblocks in the way [and] didn’t come without adversity. Learn from the adversity that you go through and learn from all the things and the lessons that you have that sports teaches you, and then go be able to present that to the masses.”
Derek Futterman is a contributing editor and sports media reporter for Barrett Sports Media. Additionally, he has worked in a broad array of roles in multimedia production – including on live game broadcasts and audiovisual platforms – and in digital content development and management. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks, wrote for the Long Island Herald and served as lead sports producer at NY2C. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
Pac-12 Pushing Enhanced Access, Deion Sanders Reeks of Desperation
What good is enhanced access for TV broadcasts or the star power of Coach Prime if those game telecasts aren’t seen?
Getting experimental has drawn some attention to USFL and XFL broadcasts during each league’s seasons. The Pac-12 is apparently hoping the same approach will draw viewers to its football telecasts beginning this fall.
Last week, the conference announced that its broadcasts on ESPN, Fox Sports, and Pac-12 Networks would feature enhanced access for viewers. Head coaches will be interviewed during games. Players and coaches will be mic’d up during pregame warm-ups. Cameras will have pregame and halftime access to team locker rooms. And handheld camera operators will be allowed to film parts of the field and game experience which were previously prohibited.
Those familiar with USFL and XFL telecasts will likely see some similarities to the greater access that those leagues allow their TV partners. Coaches are mic’d up on the sidelines, giving viewers insight into play calls and strategy. Players are interviewed during the game, providing near-instant reactions to success or failure. Cameras in the replay booth show how officials decide to either overturn or uphold calls on the field.
What the Pac-12 intends to do with its broadcasts won’t go as far as the USFL and XFL. Access to coaches and players is being expanded but will still have limits. The conference doesn’t have to demonstrate familiarity, credibility, and legitimacy to fans and media.
Spring pro football leagues are a tough sell to mainstream sports fans accustomed to college football and the NFL from September through January. Especially when the level of play is subpar and rosters are filled with unfamiliar names, the USFL and XFL have to give fans more reasons to watch.
USC, UCLA, Washington, and Oregon are established national brands and regularly compete with the top teams in college football. Utah has played in the past two Rose Bowls, seen on millions of televisions during the New Year’s Day holiday. All five of those schools finished among the final AP Top 25 rankings of the 2022-23 season. USC quarterback Caleb Williams won the 2022 Heisman Trophy.
Yet the Pac-12 is promoting the gimmick of enhanced access because it needs to attract positive fan and media attention. Right now, most of the headlines the conference is generating aren’t flattering.
Notably, the Pac-12 needs a new media rights deal. Losing two of its most prominent schools, USC and UCLA, to the Big Ten in 2024 certainly isn’t helping with that. Rumors have persisted that Washington and Oregon could soon follow. Additionally, the Big 12 is reportedly eyeing Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah as possible expansion targets.
Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff is left to tout Colorado’s new head coach, Deion Sanders, as a selling point in a new media rights deal. Never mind that Sanders hasn’t coached a game in Boulder yet. The Buffaloes are also coming off a 1-11 season and have won more than five games only once since 2007.
If Coach Prime is as successful as Colorado hopes, how likely is he to jump to a better program and stronger conference? And as mentioned in a previous paragraph, even if Sanders sticks around, Colorado could be poached by the Big 12. How much value would Coach Prime provide for the Pac-12 then?
ESPN’s deal with the conference expires in July 2024, shortly before USC and UCLA defect, and reportedly has no intention of renewing. (ESPN could still agree to a package of lower-tier games for late-night broadcast windows, but Andrew Marchand of the New York Post reports that doesn’t appear likely.) Fox’s agreement is up at the same time, though prospects of a renewal seem more optimistic. The network needs Pac-12 games to fill its college football Saturday inventory.
The options from there aren’t promising. CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd reports that current speculation has USA Network, part of the NBCUniversal conglomerate, as a possible landing spot. According to The Athletic, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff believes that the conference’s next media rights deal will have a large streaming component with Amazon and Apple TV+ mentioned as potential partners.
A streaming partner might be good from a financial standpoint, helping produce some of the revenue that ESPN has cut off. But forcing fans to find your product and asking them to pay for another TV platform isn’t a good way to draw interest. It may well be a path to irrelevance and obscurity. That’s not going to compete with the Big Ten and SEC, or even the Big 12.
And as The Athletic’s Chris Vannini points out, how can streaming be expected to save a conference like the Pac-12 when it isn’t even helping TV networks (or standalone providers) right now? Disney is losing money with Disney+, ESPN+, and Hulu. NBCUniversal has lost billions on Peacock, as has CBS with Paramount+. Maybe the Pac-12 won’t care about that because it got paid. But there’s little chance for growth.
OK, Lincoln Riley, Chip Kelly, Dan Lanning, and Kyle Whittingham could be interviewed during games. But they probably won’t say much interesting during a game. Caleb Williams, Bo Nix, and Michael Penix Jr. will be mic’d up during warm-ups. Maybe we’ll see coaches and players going crazy in the locker room at halftime. Just remember that Peyton Manning said most players only have time to use the bathroom and have a snack. There’s your compelling television.
What good is enhanced access for TV broadcasts or the star power of Deion Sanders if those game telecasts aren’t seen by large audiences? To say otherwise is desperate. That’s exactly where the Pac-12 is.
Ian Casselberry is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously written and edited for Awful Announcing, The Comeback, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, MLive, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. You can find him on Twitter @iancass or reach him by email at email@example.com.
ESPN Deal Used to Mean Stability for ACC, Now It Means Anything But
It was April 19, 1775 when the first shots of war were fired on battlefields in Lexington and Concord that would send shockwaves across the world. Some brave soul among a group of rebel farmers and blacksmiths, doctors and lawyers literally pulled the trigger on what would become known as “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World”. Indeed, the world would never be the same.
The college athletics version of that event was June 11, 2010. On that day, regents at the University of Nebraska officially applied for Big Ten membership and were unanimously approved by the other eleven schools (if the number in the conference name not matching the number of schools in that conference is something that bothers you, this column may not be for you). From that day forward, we have never really exited the “expansion era”.
One conference that has gone largely untouched in that time is the ACC. Only Maryland has left the ACC since 2010, heading to the Big Ten, and the conference has added Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Louisville in that same window. That is significant when you consider only the SEC and Big Ten have avoided any departures in this era. Every other major conference has seen great turbulence while those three conferences have primarily seen only growth.
That trend may actually continue for the ACC and that may not be a net positive for the conference or the ACC members. This is thanks to the long term grant of rights deal the conference schools negotiated with ESPN. The grant of rights means ESPN holds the broadcast rights to all home games of the current ACC schools, and do so for the next 13 years.
When the deal was signed in 2016, the 20 year media rights deal seemed like a win for the ACC, creating stability in a time of great instability. Now, what seemed like a “must have purchase” may be the impulse buy that the league schools regret for decades.
Put simply, the ACC has been lapped in the media rights race by the Big Ten, SEC and even the Big 12. At best, the ACC schools are working at a $10-15 Million per year deficit when compared to Big 12 schools. At worst, they are operating at a much larger $30-$40 Million annual deficit when compared to Big Ten and SEC programs. It would be a battle of monumental proportions for the ACC to compete on the same level as those other conferences at that large of a disadvantage.
The conference’s options are slim. ESPN has a deal that is locked for 13 more years, what benefit would it be to them to renegotiate just so the ACC can compete? For instance, it would require $140 Million annually from ESPN just to place the ACC in the same financial neighborhood as the Big 12 Conference. What would be the benefit to ESPN in doing that?
The other option for ACC schools would be to bang the departure drum. Almost all legal analysts have painted a very grim picture for the schools that would be itching to leave. The exit fee is $120 million and may get the schools some nice parting gifts but does not give them their media rights. Their home game broadcast rights will still be a part of the ESPN deal with ACC. That greatly reduces a departing school’s value to any other conference.
Maybe ESPN is willing to broker a deal for a departing school if it is going to a conference, such as the SEC, that has a large rights deal with ESPN. If one of the schools desires a departure to the Big Ten, who has large deals with networks not named ESPN, one would have to think The Worldwide Leader would be in less of a deal-making mood.
Some league athletics directors, led by Florida State’s Michael Alford, are suggesting teams be incentivized for success. Breaking the code; rather than equal distribution, the power schools want a bigger share of the money. This is where Wake Forest points out that it is all they can do to exceed football expectations on their current stipend, what will become of them if that money shrinks? It seems that conferences and leagues that steer away from an equally shared revenue model have had a difficult time making that work long term.
Maybe the ACC teams that are ready to punch out could flash back to the period of time our country was in with the events we started this column remembering. They have a team in Boston, go throw some tea in the harbor and revolt, have a modern day Boston Tea Party. As it stands now, there are several ACC members that want to leave the party they are part of. Their only problem is they are all dressed up with nowhere to go.
Ryan Brown is a columnist for Barrett Sports Media, and a co-host of the popular sports audio/video show ‘The Next Round’ formerly known as JOX Roundtable, which previously aired on WJOX in Birmingham. You can find him on Twitter @RyanBrownLive and follow his show @NextRoundLive.